It’s easy enough to imagine an alternate universe in which the Michigan State-Northwestern matchup is for a spot in the Big Ten title game.
A pass broken up here, a different call there – and maybe the Spartans and Wildcats would have a lot more to play for.
“We’ve got to find a way to coach our guys to make a couple more plays,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “We’re close to being a champion. We’re not there yet, but we’re close.”
When Michigan State hosts Northwestern today, pride and bowl position will be on the line, and that’s about it. The Wildcats lost to Michigan in overtime last weekend to fall two games out of first place in the Legends Division with two to play. The Spartans, meanwhile, are another game back after losing too many close ones during the Big Ten season.
Michigan State (5-5 overall, 2-4 Big Ten) needs at least a split of its last two regular-season games to become bowl eligible – after starting the season with Rose Bowl aspirations. All six of the Spartans’ conference games have been decided by four points or fewer.
“A game of inches, I guess,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “The game is never over, I guess, until it’s over. We’re trying to look at the end game situations and cover every possible end game situation that we can fathom, basically, because they all seem to be occurring across the country. Not just here, but across the country.”
Northwestern (7-3, 3-3) certainly knows all about that. The Wildcats were on the verge of a tremendous victory at Michigan when Devin Gardner heaved a 53-yard pass to Roy Roundtree to set up the Wolverines’ tying field goal in the final seconds of regulation. Michigan went on to win, 38-31.
“If I’m not a coach and I’m just a fan, that was a heck of a Big Ten fight,” Fitzgerald said.
Michigan State had an open date last weekend, but the Spartans nearly threw their own wrench into the division title race between Michigan and Nebraska when they led the Cornhuskers by 10 points in the fourth quarter two weeks ago. Nebraska rallied and took advantage of a late pass interference call to win, 28-24.
So Michigan State and Northwestern share similar frustrations at this point.
“I think we have that in common,” Spartans quarterback Andrew Maxwell said. “Just kind of having that ‘so close’ feeling. If they’re working like we’re working, they’re going to be working hard. Any time you have a close loss like that, that kind of keeps you going and you dig a little deeper.”
Michigan State has been preparing to contend with Northwestern’s quarterbacking duo of Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian – part of an offense that ran for 248 yards at Michigan.
“You always look at Northwestern, you’re looking at a well-coached team that puts an emphasis on toughness, and a very fast pace on offense using a two-quarterback system with Siemian and Colter,” Dantonio said. “Doing a nice job with the option, the passing game as well, very exciting offense.”
The Spartans have also run the ball well, but in a more conventional fashion than Northwestern. That’s one difference between these two teams. Michigan State leans largely on running back Le’Veon Bell, who has rushed for 1,249 yards this season.
“Tough times don’t last, tough people do, and this is a tough, tough team we’re playing this week.” Fitzgerald said. “Le’Veon is a great player. ... We’ve got our hands full. That’s what’s cool about playing Big Ten football. You don’t have time to have a pity party. You’ve got to get back to work.”